Just Say Hello
Feeling Welcome as a Health Concept
By Jeff Huyett
Many of us live in a state of dis-ease. This is not to say that we have an illness that eats away at our body. But we often exist with feelings of nervousness, worry, and just not feeling comfortable in our surroundings. The focus of these columns has been the exploration of the concepts of health. I like to challenge us to think outside the dominant paradigm of our capitalist, sickness treatment model of health care. When we view wellness as a dynamic, multi-faceted state toward which we strive, we must attend to our selves and also to the world outside ourselves with which we interact each day. We have all had the feeling of “not belonging” somewhere. How do these feelings impact our health, especially when they are a recurring sensation?
Recently I visited friends in Puerto Rico. We spent lots of time walking around and going out to eat. During the course of our excursions, I noticed that most of the other Puerto Ricans would nod or say “hola” to my friends. When I mentioned this, one friend said, “Isn’t it great! When I lived on the mainland, I missed that most. People here, all over the island, greet me. I don’t get that anywhere else in the US.” It reminded me of when I moved from a moderate-sized city in Missouri to rural Kansas. When my family would drive down a country road or small highway, people would lift a finger off the steering wheel, wave or nod. At first, we were tickled. But then we realized that this was a great way of making us feel comfortable in this place. It said, “Hi, I see you, I’m here with you, have a good day.” It is a ritual that I see expressed in country Kansas still today.
As queer people, we may sense feeling “out-of-place” over and over each day. There are seldom times when strangers nod or wave welcome to our big Gay self. Naturally, we don’t want to feel this dis-ease so we try to adapt. We may just avoid places or situations in which we don’t feel welcome. We may alter how we act or look or even lead a dual existence. In our “Gay places” we are one way, in “straight places” we are different. What work it is to keep this up! That is where coming out is a lifetime experience. We try to find places of comfort and ease. Often, it is about deciding not to really care about how people perceive or react to us. We can change how we respond and react. We try to control our own internal processes as a way to feel comfortable. But again, so much work!
Some of us don’t adapt so well. We get stuck in culturally imposed values and often turn them in on ourselves in hurtful ways. We begin to develop maladaptive ways to feel comfortable. It can happen on all realms of our being. We may drink or use drugs, including prescribed versions. Our sex acts may express themselves in ways that respond to our homophobic culture. Instead of acting on our desires in public, like straight people can, we may keep our sex in dark places out of any view of others. We may build muscles to appear more strong and manly—more “straight.” These acts of hiding may fuel our shame and guilt; compounding our dis-ease. Sometimes just “keeping up appearances” is plain exhausting.
Workplaces are another place that queer people can face daily challenges of feeling unwelcome. We all have the experience of near-mandatory participation in wedding or baby showers. We endure talk about fiancés, boyfriends or girlfriends, bridezilla experiences, often without being able to share in the same way. Sometimes, though, we should just share. In “butch” work environments we might have daily fear of disclosure of our Gayness and the impact on our colleagues. We can even fear for our safety.
As a nurse, I’m keen to the impact of these issues on one’s health. It can present itself in so many ways. So I assess queer patients for maladaptive behaviors. Identifying these types of health patterns gives information about the work to become healthy. Typically, there aren’t a lot of physical disease states that occur specifically related to our Gay sex. But our health is impacted by homophobia or transphobia and potential maladaptive behaviors develop.
What is your comfort zone about being Lesbian, Gay, bisexual or transgender? How much work do you put into “passing” in the greater world? How do you get support around being LGBT? Who knows? How is your family?
LGBT health and political activists are aware of the impact of homophobia on an individual’s health. The last three decades we’ve witnessed their work to make our society more civil and welcoming to queer folk. Mainstream culture has responded to this activism in positive ways that lets us be Gay in more places. Clearly, there is plenty of work yet to be done. Some of this happens on grander, policy and legal levels. But much of it happens in our individual relationships with the non-Gay people around us. When we are comfortable and authentic with ourselves then we can share that with the majority straight public.
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Owner’s Manual is a regular feature of White Crane. Jeff Huyett is a nurse practitioner in NYC. His clinical work has primarily been in Queer health with a focus on HIV, rectal and transgender care. He is the Radical Faerie Daisy Shaver and is involved with the development of Faerie Camp Destiny Radical Sanctuary in Vermont and can be reached at JeffANP@aol.com